Readers in Melbourne might think that this will be about the flat yellow steel planes of Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault (aka the Yellow Peril) but it is not. Although the controversy lasted a year, mostly letters to the paper and angry city council meetings. A few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on Vault read my post: And it was all yellow.
Other readers might think that the controversy was the statue wars of 2017 when statues of Captain Cook and Governor Macquarie were vandalised with paint. “No pride in Genocide.” Again a few people figuratively lost their heads but no sculptures lost their heads. For more on this read my post: Statue Wars 2017.
There are two sculptures that were so controversial that they were actually decapitated and one was completely destroyed.
The Yagan statue by Robert Hitchcock is located on Heirisson Island in the Swan River in Perth. It was decapitated and the head stolen in 1997 by an anonymous vandal who identified themselves as a ‘British patriot’. For more on Yagan’s decapitation read my book The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia.
However, even the Yagan statue is not the most controversial public sculpture in Australia which has to be Greg Taylor’s Liz and Phil Down by the Lake 1995. Made of cement fondue coated with iron oxide to give them a rested appearance. It was part of a temporary exhibition for the National Sculpture festival organised by the Australian National University in Canberra.
Seated on a park bench by Lake Burley Griffin were two naked figures. The wrinkly old naked Liz and Phil looked, the very opposite of regal, frail and human; only the crown on Liz’s head reminded the viewer who was being depicted. The fact that Lese-majeste is not in Australian law but that didn’t stop Returned Service League chief Bruce Ruxton calling for Taylor’s execution.
For more on Taylor’s sculpture read my book The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia.
January 10th, 2019 at 6:47 PM
Two very different examples of how politics impacts on sculpture!
January 10th, 2019 at 6:56 PM
Yes, although its seems that both were attacked by the right wing.
January 11th, 2019 at 1:04 AM
I’ve been looking at Melbourne’s sculptures differently since reading your book!
January 11th, 2019 at 9:26 AM
Thanks you so much, best comment an author could ever have.
January 11th, 2019 at 2:10 PM
You have seen my review of the book? https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/12/18/sculptures-of-melbourne-by-mark-s-holsworth/
January 11th, 2019 at 2:15 PM
Even more thanks for your review. I will put another link to it on my book page. Thank you for writing that.
January 10th, 2019 at 7:57 PM
I was in Canberra, at the National Library, when the naked Liz and Phil incident erupted. I went down to the lakeside, to check out the commotion. There was a big tough-looking dude yelling at everyone about how bad the statues were. I think they had already been beheaded at this stage, maybe by him. I learned later that he had driven all the way from Sydney, or maybe Brisbane, to express his rage.
He looked like a copper or army bloke. Veins were extending from his head and neck and his face was violet as he walked up and down in front of Liz and Phil ‘addressing’ the 20 or so local workers who had gathered.
He was obnoxious but too big and too angry to challenge.
I went to my car and returned with my camera. The bloke had gone so I took some photos of the beheaded statues and also took a photo of a sign that the National Gallery staff had quickly put together addressing the issue of freedom of expression and deploring the vandalism.
I donated the photos to the National Library’s Pictorial Collection, where they are catalogued and preserved.
January 10th, 2019 at 8:34 PM
Thanks for your memories of the statue Barry. Good to get more perspectives on the event. Even better you donating the photos to the National Library, cheers!
June 12th, 2020 at 10:11 AM
[…] Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the […]
November 15th, 2021 at 11:29 AM
[…] The symbolic action of decapitation is rare and indicates a political or religious aspect to the vandalism. Political vandals are well aware of their own side’s efforts and less aware of the actions of other political views. This can be demonstrated by the right-wing’s confusion in England in 2020 over what statues would be targeted by BLM protesters, leading to right-wingers protecting statues of abolitionists. Political attacks on statues are rare in Australia, and decapitation has only occurred a few times and always by right-wing vandals. (See my blog post about the majority of those incidents.) […]
January 21st, 2022 at 8:49 PM
Were is the Liz and Phil sculpture now?
January 22nd, 2022 at 11:30 AM
Shattered, scattered and lost. It was irreparably destroyed. Liz’s head was never found.
January 22nd, 2022 at 11:58 AM
I was at the National Library the day the extreme rightwinger started smashing up the sculpture. There was a small crowd on the lake foreshore and I went over. He seemed mentally deranged, furious, abusing the crowd, and I decided to take photos of the vandalized sculpture. NGA staff later placed a sign on the vandalised sculpture explaining what had happened. I think I photographed that too. I donated the images to the NLA.
January 22nd, 2022 at 6:37 PM
Scary. What was the sculpture? There does seem to be an increase of crazed attacks on random sculptures.
January 22nd, 2022 at 6:40 PM
I’m referring to the sculpture of the naked Queen and Prince.
January 22nd, 2022 at 6:44 PM
Sorry, I got confused. (So many attacks on sculptures.) Thanks for the additional details. I didn’t know there was a crowd watching.
January 22nd, 2022 at 6:49 PM
The crowd was small and gathered because the crazy bloke was making such a racket. He was a big bloke too.
January 22nd, 2022 at 9:46 PM
This might have been when the statue of Phillip lost its legs and had his chest caved in.